Intrigued by the fast-paced and exhilarating world of retail? Meet Oliver Gilding, the Trading Manager of Exclusive Brands at Iceland Foods. With a passion for retail and a flair for NPD and licensing, Oliver has carved out an impressive career in this dynamic industry. Oliver joins us for this month’s Meet the Alumni to share his secrets to success, shedding light on how he landed his dream job and the skills required to thrive in the world of grocery and retail.

Can you tell us about your current role as Trading Manager at Iceland Foods? What does your day-to-day work entail and what are some of the most rewarding aspects of your job?

I manage Iceland’s Exclusive brands, which account for over 200 products across 20 branded ranges. My primary responsibilities include brand recruitment and the day-to-day management of each brand. Exclusive Brands at Iceland generates over £300m in sales annually.

I’m responsible for trade across all channels (Core Iceland stores, The Food Warehouse and including implementing pricing and promotional strategy.

My role is incredibly varied. No day is the same, from day-to-day communication with exclusive branded partners, new product development, licensing agreement negotiations and ensuring the successful delivery of exclusive projects whilst ultimately developing strategies to drive sales and customers into our stores. As a business, we adapt quickly to market trends and try to continuously innovate to ultimately offer our customers affordable great tasting products all year round.

The most rewarding aspects of my job include being able to work within a fantastic team and with incredible brands whereby any product idea can be turned into a reality. It is incredibly rewarding walking our stores after the launch of products you have been a part of the development and the sales they drive.

How has your experience on the MDS graduate scheme prepared you for your current role at Iceland Foods?

While on the MDS Graduate Scheme, I completed four different placements – Syngenta, Maelor Forest Nurseries, Angus Soft Fruits and Iceland. Each role was completely different, including operations and project management, Account Management and Buying. My final placement was at Iceland as a category assistant. Since then I have been promoted into the role of Exclusive brands manager based at HQ located in Deeside.

The MDS Graduate Scheme gave me an opportunity to within a short space of time work within 4 businesses each specialising in differing industries, this experience gave me a clear understanding of the culture and role that I wanted to be a part of post-MDS which is invaluable, especially during the beginning of your professional career.

What skills are essential for a successful career in the retail and grocery sector, and how have you developed those skills in your career so far?

In the retail and grocery sector, several essential skills are required for a successful career. One of the most crucial skills I have found is clear communication, which is vital for building relationships with customers, brands, colleagues, and suppliers. I have refined my communication abilities through regular interactions with stakeholders and actively seeking opportunities outside my comfort zone, including participation in workshops and training sessions.

Analytical skills are also paramount for interpreting sales data and identifying market trends. Over the past 12 months, I have prioritised improving these skills by attending online courses and training sessions. These learning experiences have greatly benefited me, allowing me to understand our weekly sales in granular detail and devise effective strategies for short- and medium-term sales growth, such as implementing in-store deals, online bundles, and increased marketing activities.

Furthermore, leadership and team management skills are equally essential for success in the retail and grocery sector. I have cultivated these skills by effectively managing cross-functional teams, fostering a positive work environment, and projecting optimism. Additionally, I have actively pursued leadership development programs, which have proven immensely valuable, especially in the past year when I had the opportunity to oversee and guide two MDS graduates who directly reported into me—a truly full-circle experience.

The sector necessitates adaptability and strong problem-solving skills. Each day, I am presented with challenges that require swift adaptation to shifting market conditions and the ability to devise innovative solutions.

Ultimately, my career so far in the retail and grocery sector has allowed me to refine skills such as effective communication, customer focus, analytical prowess, leadership, adaptability, and problem-solving abilities. I have consistently honed these skills through practical experience, continuous learning, and actively pursuing professional development opportunities—a practice I highly recommend. My guiding principle throughout has been to embrace discomfort as a catalyst for growth and improvement.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in the retail and grocery sector?

Working in the UK retail environment can be both challenging and rewarding. It’s a fast-paced industry, and you must be able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, whether it’s dealing with busy periods, customer demands or unexpected changes in stock levels.

One of the most significant challenges in the UK retail environment is the highly competitive nature of the industry. There is a constant need to keep up with customer trends and demands, as well as fierce competition from other retailers. Try to gain practical experience where possible and stay updated on consumer preferences, market trends, and emerging technologies. Continuously seek opportunities for innovative product development that align with changing customer needs and demands.

Be resilient and embrace feedback to improve your skills. Stay open to learning and adapt to new challenges and opportunities, the environment can be highly rewarding. It’s a customer-focused industry, and there is a great deal of satisfaction in providing excellent customer service and helping people find the products they need.

How have you continued to develop your skills and knowledge, how do you stay up to date with industry trends and what resources have been most helpful to you?

I have found the best way of doing this is to immerse yourself within your category, I visit stores and competitors on a regular basis to understand what else is happening and what we could do differently.

I also try to attend industry-specific training programs and take advantage of online resources and webinars whilst also connecting with professionals in the retail industry through networking events and LinkedIn.

How did the MDS graduate scheme help you build a professional network, and how has that network benefited you in your career?

The MDS graduate scheme has played a pivotal role in building my professional network. Through this scheme, I have had the privilege of collaborating with talented individuals from diverse backgrounds and disciplines. These connections have formed the foundation of a strong network within the retail and grocery sector.

This network has proven to be invaluable in several ways. Firstly, it has provided a support system of like-minded individuals who understand the challenges and opportunities in our industry, my network has opened doors to new opportunities and collaborations. Secondly, it provided me with insights, advice, and support that have been incredibly helpful in shaping my professional development.

What advice would you give to new trainees starting on the MDS graduate scheme?

Stay resilient and trust the process. You may not love every role, but each one will teach you valuable lessons about yourself and your professional capabilities. Each role is designed to challenge you, and as the scheme progresses, you will identify areas for improvement and further development. Try to extract the positives from each position and make the most of this incredible opportunity to experience four real roles of responsibility within the two-year scheme.

What are your future career goals, and how do you plan to continue developing your skills and knowledge in the retail and grocery sector?

I am committed to continuously challenging myself and expanding my knowledge of the industry and its diverse roles. My primary focus is on personal growth and contributing to a company that appreciates and provides regular opportunities for learning, development, and progression. My ultimate goal is to become a successful leader in the retail and grocery industry. While I haven’t extensively contemplated the long-term trajectory of my career, my immediate priority is to surpass all expectations and explore the opportunities that arise from this.